Think Small for Urban Orchards

Growing family-sized fruit trees creates meaningful harvests.


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This little nectarine tree is a good fruit producer.

Photo by Ramona d'Viola

The Bay Area’s near-perfect year-round weather and abundant banana belts naturally lend themsleves to farming. Coupled with the high price (or inaccessibility) of wholesome, seasonal, locally produced food, the urban farming movement is the new millennium equivalent of a chicken in every pot. Organically and humanely raised, of course.

We can thank Alice Waters and Michael Pollan for reintroducing us to the joys of eating and growing fresh produce right from our own yards. In our foodie-inspired community, these mini farms and orchards (some complete with livestock) are a common site. Yet, as idyllic as an orchard in your front yard or backyard may sound, the urban farmer shares many of the same issues as their rural counterparts, just on a smaller scale. Scale is the operative word here.

That gigantic fruit tree planted decades ago then left to its own feral ways — the one that turns your yard or sidewalk into a sticky, rodent-filled mess when the fruit starts to drop — is what you don’t want in your backyard orchard. Ann Ralph, author of Grow a Little Fruit Tree, suggests you do just that and encourages you to “think small.” Ralph, one of Berkeley Horticultural Nursery’s resident experts,

adopted her radical approach to growing small fruit trees a few decades ago and has been evangelizing ever since.

According to Ralph, her fruit tree pruning technique lends itself to smaller spaces while allowing for a greater variety of trees too.

The keys are placement and pruning. Once you’ve selected the optimal varieties for your climate and the sunniest location for your orchard, the next step after planting your bare root whip is to immediately lop off the top two-thirds of the tree. You read that right. You’ll cut off more than what’s left.

Ralph’s little tree approach is admittedly “aggressive,” but this seemingly cruel cut sets the stage for a healthy, vigorous, human-scaled tree that’s easy to harvest and one that produces just enough fruit to share with family and friends — and not the rodents —year after year.

After the initial shock of lopping off that much tree has subsided, you must trust but keep cutting. The trunk of your tree will never get any taller than the initial cut. However, without continued pruning, your little fruit tree can and will grow  to unwanted heights without structure, training, and support — kind of like a toddler. These tried-and-true pruning techniques were developed for their large-scale counterparts but work just as well for your little fruit tree.

OK, let’s grow.

Almost any fruit tree can be shaped this way; however, stone fruit trees — apricots, peaches, pluots, and nectarines — benefit most from the open center pruning technique. Sometimes called open center vase, pruning for this shape opens the tree’s interior canopy for maximum sunlight penetration and develops the “scaffolding” limbs that support ripening fruit.

According to Ralph, this “low-branching, tree will be shorter, stronger, easier to care for and harvest and produce far more useful fruit.”

For trees with a naturally upright growth, like apples, sweet cherries, pears, and European plums, central leader pruning is recommended. This technique envisions the tree as a spiral, removing overlapping branches on the same plane to allow each fruit-bearing branch plenty of room above and below, again to maximize sunlight on ripening fruit. A central leader-pruned tree has its width at the bottom to allow for sunlight to filter through the exterior and into the interior canopy. And because it’s kept small, it is easy to harvest when the time comes.

Perhaps one of the most common forms of the little tree technique is also its most labor intensive: An espaliered fruit tree is a beautiful thing to behold when mature but requires vigilance in the early stages to ensure its shape and size are maintained.

The Romans started it, the French perfected it, and home farmers are the next generation of practitioners. An espaliered tree is more like a 2-D version of a tree, whereby the limbs are trained at a 90-degree angle to the trunk, at near vertical, horizontal, or angles along a wall, trellis, or other framework.

In short (all puns intended), the first prune will determine the sturdy scaffolding that makes a short tree possible and desirable. For any of these pruning techniques, the initial cut is simply the conversation starter. What comes next is an ongoing dialogue and a long-term engagement with your small tree.

Any excuse to get out in the garden. Happy harvesting.

This article originally appeared in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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